Building 3D Characters
You’re at a party and there’s a man dressed as a priest. He has a black shirt, black trousers, and a white collar around his neck. He has a small gold crucifix hanging from a chain outside his shirt, visible to everyone. He is smiling and talking to people. You notice his shoes are highly polished, reflecting the room around them in the black leather. In one hand he holds a bottle of beer, in the other an unlit cigarette. The hand with the cigarette has been tattooed with an image of a bird in mid-flight.
What is his name?
This man, at this party, he doesn’t exist. He is as much in my head as he is in yours. The difference between my version of him and yours, though, is I know what school he went to. I know how old he was when his grandmother died. I know whether he is actually a priest or not.
There is nothing worse than a shallow, flat character. Whenever a writer dreams up a character they need to know all the above information, and more. They need to know everything. If you just met that man, at a party, would you be able to predict what he was going to do next? Could you explain his actions by looking into his past? The answer, quite simply, is no.
Getting to know a character is very much like getting to know a real person. The only real difference is that an actual person will not let you decide who they are, whereas a character doesn’t have that choice. At least, not initially.
The greatest moment you can have as a writer is when, after creating a character, you tell them to do something and they refuse. They become alive, they exist. They think, therefore they are.
The question is, therefore, how do you get to know your character? Whenever I write in or dream up a new character, I start with their immediate disposition. Then I work backwards, creating a history for them in my mind. I answer a full character questionnaire, so I have a complete and well-rounded understanding of who they are as a person. Then I walk a mental mile in their shoes.
Living as your character is a strange concept. Some people advise going and buying a coffee the way your character would, walking like them, talking like them, ordering what they would drink, being them. Although I appreciate the method of this kind of immersive acting, I don’t find it necessary. Instead, I become them internally, and think about situations and how I, as them, would respond or react. Then I start writing.
Once you have that character in your mind you can step away and focus on someone else. Whenever you need them, you just slip back into their head instead of yours, then write what they say, what they do, how they feel, into your scene. Consider having multiple personalities, but by choice.
The better you know your character, the more your readers will get to know them, and the more realistic they become. Try different methods, do whatever you need to, but get inside their head.
To help, here is the character questionnaire I use when building a new character.
What are your character’s strengths?
What are their weaknesses?
What is their biggest regret from the past?
How would they describe themselves?
What does your character want most?
Are they religious, do they have any spiritual beliefs, and how do they feel about religion?
What are your characters political ideals, and how do they feel about politics?
What level of intelligence does your character possess, and how do they apply that to everyday life?
What economic and social class was your character brought up in?
How does your character feel about their father, and what influence did their father have on their life?
How do they feel about their mother, and what influence did their mother have?
Does or did your character have any brothers and sisters, and how did they feel about each of them?
When they were growing up, was character disciplined at home, and what kind of discipline were they subjected to?
Were they sheltered or independent as a child, and how has that influenced their life?
Was their childhood full of affection or rejection, and how did that affect them?
Was your character educated and how did they feel about being educated?
Did your character have friends whilst growing up, and what were the dynamics within their social circles?
How does your character speak, including tone and pitch, speed and tempo, pronunciation and accent, rhythm and pacing, volume and power?
How did their upbringing, education, class, geographical location, or any other factors affect the way they speak?
How does your character move during conversation, including gestures and facial reactions?
How do their speech and physical movements change when they lie?
What, if any, further knowledge or training from additional education has your character gained?
What is your character’s profession, their job?
How do they feel about their job?
What is their professional ambition?
Where, if anywhere, have they travelled to before?
What is your character disillusioned with, and how did this happen?
What events, whether social or political, have made the biggest impression upon them and how?
Who are their friends, and how do they feel about them?
What part or role does your character usually play in social situations?
How does your character see themselves in comparison to those around them?
Do they have a partner or lover, and what do they feel about them?
What does your character look for in a potential partner or lover?
How do they feel about sex?
How do they feel about children and being a parent, whether they have children or not?
What kind of physical items interest your character, and what do they have in their home?
How do they express themselves through their clothing and appearance?
How do they feel about their physical appearance?
What would they change about their physical appearance if they could?
What are their interests or hobbies?
How do they react to stress?
What are your character’s any bad habits?
How are their manners?
How do they react when they fail?
How does your character react to seeing other people in pain?
How do they react to change?
What type of sense of humour does your character have?
What specifically do they mock or look down upon?
What do they think about when they daydream?
What is your character’s biggest secret?
“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”
© 2015 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.